The poor man, who survived by begging, set a unique example by planting a staggering number of trees
A chop of an axe into a palmyra palm tree felt like a strike straight into my heart. I wailed and pleaded with them not to fell the trees, but it all went in vain.
They cut down the trees one by one and piled them up like dead bodies. My heart still aches for them.
Khairun Bibi in a choked voice was narrating her helplessness in trying to save hundreds of palmyra palm trees, which bore testimony to her late father-in-law Gowher Ali's s profound love for nature.
Even a year ago the trees, planted by Gowher Ali, stood tall and proud on both sides of the Rajshahi-Naogaon highway. But that has now become a desolate place.
Most of the 12,000 trees have been cut down in a span of a year to make room for the expansion of the highway.
How ultra-poor Gowher gradually built his 'kingdom' of palmyra palm trees is a long narrative of struggle.
He used to go door-to-door and beg not just for food, but for palmyra seeds also. One by one Gowher sowed the seeds along a two-kilometre stretch of the Rajshahi-Naogaon highway at Mohadevpur upazila in Naogaon. Thus he built his 'kingdom' of palmyra trees out of nothing, but with passion and hard work, over a course of 20 years.
Hailing from Shikarpur village in Naogaon, the poor man, who survived by begging, set a unique example by planting a staggering number of trees, 12,000 to be exact.
Gowher also chose uncultivated land and even graveyards for plantation.
His creation of the empire earned him the National Environment Award from Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina at the age of 107 in 2009.
This great man died in 2010 of old age complications.
His neighbours and relatives recall that there were no trees along the highway when Gowher was young.
Villagers, farmers and day labourers had to suffer in the scorching heat in the absence of any shelter or shadow.
Gowher observed all this and the idea to do something different crossed his mind. He started to plant palmyra palm trees.
He looked after the trees as he did his own children.
After Gowher's death, this empire lasted another decade.
But last year it was brought down to make way for the expansion of the Rajshahi-Naogaon highway.
Moslem Uddin, son of Gowher Ali, said that although his father planted many trees along the road, the family did not get any compensation after they were cut down.
"On the contrary, I have to struggle as a day labourer to maintain my family," he added.
He recalled that his father had once told him that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had asked him what he needed after he won the Environment Award.
He replied that he needed a job for his son and a concrete house in Naogaon town. The prime minister had even agreed to fulfil his needs.
However, Moslem claims that they are yet to receive any of the things that his father asked for. At least a job would have helped him run his family, he added.
According to the Roads and Highways Department (RHD), the expansion of the Rajshahi-Naogaon highway began in January 2018. A tender for cutting down the trees was announced the following month, and the task was executed in April to June the same year.
Hamidul Haque, executive director of the RHD, Naogaon Office, said accidents were frequent because the road was relatively narrow - only 18 feet wide.
Therefore, the road has been expanded to 24 feet at a cost of Tk344 crore.
For the expansion work, 30,000 trees have been cut down. They will plant trees three to four times more than the previous number in those places to cater for the environmental loss, according to the Rajshahi RHD.
This implies, for each kilometre, two thousand trees will be planted. A two-year tender has already been floated for this purpose.
Hamidul said a demand note was submitted for planting different types of trees like - Palash, Krishnachura, Shimul, Jarul and many more along both sides of every two kilometres of the expanded highway.
But he could not confirm whether palmyra palm tree is also on the list to keep alive the legacy of Gowher Ali.
Dr Md Jahangir Firoz, executive tree nursing specialist of RHD, Rajshahi office, said Jarul tree was mainly selected for plantation and there was no mention of palmyra palm tree in any demand note.
The trees that were included in tender notices have been planted and no new tender has been announced for planting more trees, he concluded.